Officer-Involved: The Media Language of Police Killings
This paper examines language patterns in US television news coverage of police killings. We first document that the media employ semantic structures that obfuscate responsibility—such as passive voice, nominalizations, and intransitive verbs—more frequently for police killings than for civilian killings. Using field variation and an online experiment, we demonstrate that these language differences matter. In the field, we find that people who happened to have taken a survey just after more obfuscatory coverage of a police killing are more likely to support police funding. In our online experiment, participants are less likely to hold police officers morally responsible and demand penalties when exposed to obfuscatory language, especially when the victim is unarmed. Returning to the news data, we find higher use of obfuscatory language when victims are unarmed, when video footage is available, or when the suspect is not fleeing—in other words, situations when obfuscation matters most. Turning to the causes of this differential obfuscation, our evidence is not consistent with either demand-side drivers or supply-side factors associated with TV station ownership and political leaning. Instead, our results point to original narratives crafted by police departments as a more likely driver of obfuscation. Our study emphasizes the importance of considering semantic language structures in understanding how media shapes perceptions, extending beyond coverage quantity and slant.